The automatic muse

In the fall of 1917, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, now in middle age and having twice had marriage proposals turned down, first by his great love Maud Gonne and next by Gonne’s daughter Iseult, offered his hand to a well-off young Englishwoman named Georgie Hyde-Lees. She accepted, and the two were wed a few weeks later, on October 20, in a small ceremony in London.

Hyde-Lees was a psychic, and four days into their honeymoon she gave her husband a demonstration of her ability to channel the words of spirits through automatic writing. Yeats was fascinated by the messages that flowed through his wife’s pen, and in the ensuing years the couple held more than 400 such seances, the poet poring over each new script. At one point, Yeats announced that he would devote the rest of his life to interpreting the messages. “No,” the spirits responded, “we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.” And so they did, in abundance. Many of Yeats’s great late poems, with their gyres, staircases, and phases of the moon, were inspired by his wife’s mystical scribbles.

One way to think about AI-based text-generation tools like OpenAI’s GPT-3 is as clairvoyants. They are mediums that bring the words of the past into the present in a new arrangement. GPT-3 is not creating text out of nothing, after all. It is drawing on a vast corpus of human expression and, through a quasi-mystical statistical procedure (no one can explain exactly what it is doing), synthesizing all those old words into something new, something intelligible to and requiring interpretation by its interlocutor. When we talk to GPT-3, we are, in a way, communing with the dead. One of Hyde-Lees’ spirits said to Yeats, “this script has its origin in human life — all religious systems have their origin in God & descend to man — this ascends.” The same could be said of the script generated by GPT-3. It has its origin in human life; it ascends.

It’s telling that one of the first commercial applications of GPT-3, Sudowrite, is being marketed as a therapy for writer’s block. If you’re writing a story or essay and you find yourself stuck, you can plug the last few sentences of your work into Sudowrite, and it will generate the next few sentences, in a variety of versions. It may not give you metaphors for poetry (though it could), but it will give you some inspiration, stirring thoughts and opening possible new paths. It’s an automatic muse, a mechanical Georgie Hyde-Lees.

Sudowrite, and GPT-3 in general, has already been used for a lot of stunts. Kevin Roose, the New York Times technology columnist, recently used it to generate a substantial portion of a review of a mediocre new book on artificial intelligence. (The title of the review was, naturally, “A Robot Wrote this Book Review.”) Commenting on Sudowrite’s output, Roose wrote, “within a few minutes, the AI was coming up with impressively cogent paragraphs of analysis — some, frankly, better than what I could have generated on my own.”

But the potential of these AI-powered automatic writers goes far beyond journalistic parlor tricks. They promise to serve as new tools for the creation of art. One of the most remarkable pieces of writing I read this year was Vauhini Vara’s story “Ghosts” in The Believer. While locked down in 2020, Vara became obsessed with GPT-3. “I sought out examples of GPT-3’s work, and they astonished me,” she writes in an introduction to her piece. “Some of them could easily be mistaken for texts written by a human hand. In others, the language was weird, off-kilter — but often poetically so, almost truer than writing any human would produce.” Yeats would have understood.

Vara’s older sister contracted cancer in high school, and died a few years later. The experience left Vara traumatized, and, though an accomplished writer, she had never been able to write about it. But with GPT-3 she began to find the words. “I found myself irresistibly attracted to GPT-3,” she explains “— to the way it offered, without judgment, to deliver words to a writer who has found herself at a loss for them.” She began to feed GPT-3 some sentences about her sister’s illness, and the system started to weave those sentences into stories — fantastical and uncanny, but also stirring, and ultimately heartbreaking. The Believer story chronicles eight of her sessions with GPT-3. It reads as a conversation between a writer and her muse, a conversation that begins tentatively and grows richer and truer as it goes on.

At one point, after Vara confesses to feeling like “a ghost” after her sister’s death, GPT-3 continues the thought:

So I can’t describe her to you. But I can describe what it felt like to have her die. It felt like my life was an accident — or, worse, a mistake. I’d made a mistake in being born, and now, to correct it, I would have to die. I’d have to die, and someone else — a stranger — would have to live, in my place. I was that stranger. I still am.

What gives the exchange all the more resonance is the sense that, in drawing on its corpus of past human speech to generate its mysterious new pastiche, GPT-3 is expressing the pain of others who have suffered unbearable losses. Spirits are talking.